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Education: The changing faces of public school students

Part 6 of a series on the state of education in the Santa Clarita Valley

Posted: December 4, 2010 10:25 p.m.
Updated: December 5, 2010 4:30 a.m.

The Hart district hit a turning point five years ago.

The junior high and high school district was dealing with a high-profile lawsuit brought by a group of Valencia High School students who alleged they were victims of racism.

Greg Lee, now director of human resources and equity services for the William S. Hart Union High School District, says the lawsuit reflected a transformation in the Santa Clarita Valley.

“While this lawsuit brought attention to Valencia High, the changing demographics in the community were causing tension and issues throughout the valley that involved students from Hart district schools, with situations occurring not necessarily on campuses — although a few did — but in various changing neighborhoods in the community,” Lee said.

It was also a time of change for the Hart district and its administrators, who were considering the impacts of changing demographics on their district.

“The district determined that with the increase in more African American, Latino and Asian families from all levels of affluence, sometimes things get misunderstood due to cultural differences,” Lee said.

Changing schools
In fact, the past 10 years have seen tremendous changes in local school districts, an increase in minority students that came in concert with a dramatic population growth in the Santa Clarita Valley, growth that dwindled only with the onset of the Great Recession.

“I think it’s natural as a community grows,” Lee said of changing demographics in schools. “I think the population shift is a national one.”

At Sulphur Springs School District, for example, Hispanic students now make up the majority of student population, according to state data.

During the 2009-10 school year, 2,559 Hispanic students attended Sulphur Springs schools, compared to 2,041 white students, according to the data.

It’s a far cry from the Sulphur Springs schools of the early ’90s, when 662 of the 4,075 students were Hispanic.

It’s no different at Newhall School District, which serves Newhall, Stevenson Ranch and parts of Valencia.

Along with an increase in the number of Hispanic students, Newhall School District has experienced a surge in Asian students, specifically Korean students.

“When I share this with people, they are astounded to find out that Anglos are no longer a majority in our district,” Superintendent Marc Winger said.

Much like the elementary school districts, the Hart district has seen an increase in the number of Hispanic, Asian and African American students as they move on from elementary schools to junior high and high schools.

For the Hart district, the increase in Asian population is mainly concentrated at Rancho Pico Junior High and West Ranch High School, Lee said.

And after a brief exodus of African American families, that population is increasing again, especially at La Mesa Junior High School, Lee said.

The impact of diversity
Whether it’s creating intervention programs for English-language learners or sending materials home in different languages, school districts are feeling the effects of their changing student populations.

The most obvious effect of more diversity is the increase in English-language learners, or students who are classified as needing extra instruction to learn English.

During the 2009-10 school year, the Newhall School District included 1,885 English-language learners out of its roughly 7,000-students, according to state data.

The ultimate goal for English-language learners is to become English proficient. But getting them there can be an issue for some schools.

“Schools have long struggled with non-English-speaking students,” said Bill Celis, associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It’s still very challenging in communities that have demographics that have shifted so rapidly.”
“It takes extra time and effort to bring a child to proficiency in English,” Winger said.

English-language learners have different academic needs than their English-proficient peers, and teachers are constantly being trained in the latest methods for educating them.

Schools like McGrath Elementary in the Newhall district have after-school programs for students to continue their education and gain personal skills.

“These kids are moving from the regular day program into an academic, fine arts and sports program after school,” Winger said.

At the Newhall School District, administrators have come to value teachers who speak multiple languages, the superintendent said.

Twenty-four of about 250 Newhall district teachers are certified as either English and Spanish or English and Korean fluent, Winger said.

“We are teaching in English. There’s no question,” Winger said. “There’s also the need for primary language instruction in the classroom. A child coming into kindergarten — you want to have someone who can support them in their primary language.”

Learning other cultures
The increase in diversity also means educators have to be trained to understand how to work with people of all backgrounds.

“Over the past few years, we as a district have paid more attention to how things look to nonwhite students and their parents,” Lee said.

“Even the example of labeling behavior such as ‘rowdy and boisterous,’ compared to ‘energetic and enthusiastic,’ can be interpreted differently by people of various cultures.”

The upswing in non-English-speaking students means districts have to communicate with parents in their native languages.

Any time there is more than 15 percent of one specific language group at a school, a district must provide materials and services in that language.

Newhall School District must send school materials to families in Korean, Winger said.

Newhall also employ bilingual office workers who can work with parents.

McGrath was the first local school to hold Parent Teacher Association meetings in Spanish.

While all schools offer programs to teach kids about diversity, schools like Pico Canyon and Oak Hills elementary schools are among the Newhall School District’s most diverse, Winger said.

“They’re really trying to highlight and learn about other cultures,” Winger said.


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